Old Smoke: The Drunkard and the Dancing Master, Part I

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


Even today, when people often change careers, Gen. Edward Ferrero’s resume might seem startling. The son of Italian political refugees, he was born in Granada, Spain, on Jan. 18, 1831, and arrived in New York while still an infant. Edward’s father taught dance. He opened a school at the northeast corner of 14th St. and 6th Ave. The future general was practically raised on the academy’s polished floors, becoming a dancer, choreographer and teacher, even teaching dancing to the cadets at West Point. He is generally described as charming, witty and good-humored, with beautifully polished manners and exquisite personal grace.

Yet the dance master was also a lieutenant colonel in the New York National Guard. After the secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, Ferrero recruited the 51st New York, a new regiment of roughly 1000 men, at his own expense. He was commissioned its colonel on Oct. 14. In an army of the inexperienced, Ferrero’s peacetime soldiering made him look pretty good. He knew something about moving men about a parade ground (what is drill, after all, but choreography?). Besides, he was a teacher: he knew how to train men.

His regiment was assigned to Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s North Carolina expedition. Burnside was a West Pointer, a veteran of garrison duty during the Mexican War and a major general of the Rhode Island militia. Burnside seemed the stereotype of a mid-Victorian general: broad-shouldered and firm-jawed, with a steady gaze and flamboyant muttonchop whiskers (the term "sideburns" comes from his name). Despite his formidable appearance, the Rhode Islander was genial and kindly, the soul of truth and honor, and as unsuited to command an army by virtue of poor judgment and lack of common sense as any man with stars on his shoulders in the history of the Republic. But Lincoln liked Burnside and believed him far more competent than he was (one of his rare misreadings of character).

Burnside gave Col. Ferrero command of a brigade–three regiments, roughly 3000 men. At Roanoke Island, Ferrero led his men ashore: they took the first fortified redoubt captured in the war. In light of his successes, Lincoln gave Burnside command of the Union’s major fighting force in the East, the Army of the Potomac. At Antietam, Burnside rigidly insisted on crossing a small stream by sending men piecemeal across a narrow stone bridge within range of Confederate cannon. They could have waded. The result was slaughter.

Ferrero fought well, winning promotion to brigadier general on Sept. 10, 1862. Three months later, he fought under Burnside again at Fredericksburg, when the Rhode Islander repeatedly sent the Army of the Potomac uphill against entrenched Confederate artillery, losing 13,000 men in a day.

Burnside was not working out. Lincoln transferred him to command of the Ninth Corps, a then-independent unit consisting of roughly 25,000 men that supported the Army of the Potomac without being part of it. Ferrero, then only 33 years old, would command the Ninth Corps’ Fourth Division, consisting entirely of African-American soldiers, many former slaves from Maryland.

 

By the summer of 1864, the Civil War in the East was a grim reaping. The Union had finally found a commander with the habit of victory. At 38, U.S. Grant had been a washed-up clerk in his family’s store in Galena, IL. At 41, he was general-in-chief of the Union armies. Grant was quiet, unpretentious, even seedy. As Jean Edward Smith wrote, his rumpled exterior concealed "a formidable intellect and a rock-solid self-confidence…a topographer’s feel for landscape, a photographic memory when it came to maps, a command of the English language at its incisive best." He understood the Union’s superior resources would wear the Confederacy away, if only he engaged the enemy and never let go.

His opponent, Gen. Robert E. Lee, understood Grant and his strategy. After three years, Lee knew Southern independence would rest on dragging out the war through the November elections. If Northern voters, weary of fighting, turned out Lincoln and the Republicans, the incoming Democrats would make peace.

On May 4, 1864, Grant crossed the Rapidan River with 120,000 men. There, in the gloomy woodland known as the Wilderness, which Bruce Catton called "the last place on earth for armies to fight," he engaged Lee in a rapid succession of bloody battles: Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Yellow Tavern. On May 20, Grant again advanced, attempting to outflank Lee, forcing Lee to move to keep ahead of him. On June 3, 1864, Grant had reached Cold Harbor, seven miles east of Richmond, VA, the Confederate capital. That day, Grant sent three corps, tens of thousands of men, charging across an open field against Confederate artillery. He did it repeatedly, only stopping some seven thousand casualties later. It was not that he had lost so many men–casualties are in the nature of the business–it was that he had wasted them, and Grant could not justify it even to himself.

He had taken 60,000 casualties in one month’s hard fighting, nearly half the men with whom he had crossed the Rapidan. But the Union could replace them. The Confederacy could no longer replace the 30,000 casualties he had inflicted on Lee.

Within a week, Grant moved yet again, this time in secret. On June 15, barely 10 days after Cold Harbor, Lee realized he had been outfoxed for once when the Union army attacked the Confederate rail hub at Petersburg, VA. Lee’s luck was with him: the local Confederate commander held Grant off for three days, until Lee arrived in force on June 18. Now the armies dug in, erecting a line of forts and trenches that stretched some 40 miles from Richmond to Petersburg. It was the first modern trench warfare: its students would later apply its lessons on the Western Front during World War I.

The result was stalemate. The frustration that had prompted Grant to order frontal assaults at Cold Harbor also led him to entertain radical means to break through Lee’s lines outside Petersburg. They wouldn’t work, either.

 

Unlike many Union officers assigned to command black troops, Ferrero seems to have had no reservations about their military virtues. Most of them were new to soldiering: he drilled and trained them vigorously.

East of Petersburg, the armies were closest at Elliott’s Salient, also called Pegram’s Salient. This was a Confederate artillery emplacement held by Johnson’s Division, an under-strength unit of a few thousand men commanded by Major Gen. Bushrod Johnson, barely 500 feet from Burnside’s Ninth Corps. One of Burnside’s regiments was the 48th Pennsylvania, an infantry regiment recruited among Schuylkill County coalminers. Even its commander, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, was a mining engineer. During their bull sessions, Pleasants’ men devised a plan. They would dig a 500-foot-long tunnel beneath the Confederate trenches and fill it with explosives to blast a hole in Lee’s line. A division would then attack through the breach. Pleasants proposed the scheme to Burnside, who approved it and then obtained the begrudging consent of Gen. George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac and of Gen. Grant.

Burnside selected the Fourth Division–Ferrero’s command–to spearhead the attack. Ferrero’s men were fresh, having been held in reserve. After the explosion, Ferrero’s command would advance around the crater, clearing Confederate stragglers from their trenches. Then three more divisions would move through the breach to seize Cemetery Hill, about 500 yards beyond. The hill overlooked Petersburg itself: its control made Lee’s position untenable. Ferrero immediately began training his men for the assault.

On June 25, 1864, the Pennsylvanians began digging the tunnel with picks and shovels, finishing it on July 23. The main shaft was 586 feet long and four and a half feet wide, with two lateral galleries, or branches, totaling 75 feet, extending beneath the Confederate entrenchments. Over the next four days, the Pennsylvanians packed 320 kegs of black powder, totaling 8000 pounds, into the galleries. Then they installed the fuse.

Within 12 hours of the attack, however, Gen. Meade dropped his own bomb. Meade had just survived a congressional investigation into his conduct at Gettysburg a year before. If this attack failed, Meade wanted no political repercussions for ordering black soldiers to the slaughter. Accordingly, he ordered Burnside to substitute a white division for Ferrero’s as the assault’s first wave. The change of plan was so sudden that some of Ferrero’s commanders did not learn of it until after midnight.

It was an amazing decision. Ferrero had trained his men for weeks in anticipation of the assault. The other divisions were unprepared. Moreover, although Ferrero’s men had never been in close contact with the enemy, they were anxious to fight. Of course, Burnside had his orders, but a competent commander would have chosen Ferrero’s replacement as assault leader based upon his subordinates’ qualities. Burnside had his division commanders draw lots. James Ledlie won. No one worse could have been chosen.

James Hewitt Ledlie was born in Utica, NY, on April 14, 1832. A 32-year-old civil engineer, he had been commissioned a major in 1861, rising to brigadier general by the end of 1862. He had generally avoided combat in various district and post commands. This was probably good for all concerned. As Ezra Warner wrote in Generals in Blue, Ledlie was "an arrant physical coward" who hit the bottle under stress. Nonetheless, in May 1864, he was assigned to command a brigade in the Ninth Corps. A month later, he was given command of the First Division of the Ninth Corps, even though his subordinates were already complaining of his poor performance on the battlefield and his drinking habits.

Now Ledlie had drawn the short straw. Ledlie’s First Division, though weary and demoralized from weeks of fighting without relief and completely unprepared for this new assignment, was to enter the breach. At 3:30 a.m., zero hour, they were standing to. No explosion. After 4 a.m., the 48th Pennsylvania reported that the fuse had died out some 40 feet short of the explosives. Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Henry Rees entered the gallery and reignited the fuse. They had barely emerged from the tunnel’s mouth at 4:45 a.m. when the spark reached the explosives.

 

To be continued…

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